1942 ***** 73 mins.
When I was a teenager, I read a nonfiction book by Stephen King, titled Danse Macabre, which is about the history of horror (up to the time of its publication in the early 1980s. In Danse Macabre, King writes about Cat People quite affectionately, and what he wrote encouraged me to seek this film out. I didn't have to wait long, because one of my local public television stations aired it one Saturday night. I recorded it, watched it, and immediately fell in love with it. Although I was never one to rent movies (I was always more of a purchaser), I actually rented the VHS of this film from my local rental store. Then, when the store went out of business, I made sure to purchase that same VHS. When the double feature DVD (with its creative and completely different sequel, The Curse of the Cat People) came out, I snatched it up immediately. In 2016, when The Criterion Collection released it on blu-ray, I purchased it as well. Finally, to complete my collection, I sought out the 1994 Criterion laserdisc.
Originally conceived as a B-movie, Cat People elevated itself to A-movie status. As the first film from legendary producer Val Lewton, Cat People began as a studio-tested title, from which Lewton and DeWitt Bodeen crafted a clever little story about a young Serbian woman who believes in the legends of her people, specifically that she is descended from a race of "cat people." She believes that if driven to anger, she can change into a panther, and if the man she loves kisses her, she will turn into the panther and kill him. When the film was first released, it was released as the second feature, on a double bill with a much bigger budget film. As the ticket sales increased, and the studio saw that people were paying just to see Cat People again and again, it was reissued as the A-film in the double billing. Artfully directed by French director Jacques Tourneur, the film is filled with skillfully crafted shots and sublte innuendo. Many viewers were sure they'd seen vicious attacks and horrors that weren't even there! Tourneur's use of shadows and sounds lead the viewer's mind to frights more terrifying than anything actually on the screen. Cat People also went against the grain of the time and used an original score that adds to the ambience and stays with the viewer long after the film is over. It's full of heart, passion, and mystery. Most importantly, it gets better with each repeat viewing. I've been watching this film for many, many years, and I'm still finding new things in it every time I watch it. It's a richly textured film that has plenty to say without insulting the viewer's intelligence.
I'd like to now point out a perspective on this film that I've never heard any critics mention. Watching it recently, in the wake of the Time's Up and Me Too movements, Cat People could be seen as a film all about female empowerment. The film's two female leads are strong, powerful characters, both of whom are really running the show. Irena has avoided love and relationships because of what she believes she is, and when she does fall in love with Oliver, he is kind and gentle with her, not pressuring her to do anything she doesn't want to. When we first meet Alice, Oliver's co-worker, she's the one on her feet, giving the orders. She's has an upright, powerful attitude that commands the attention of everyone around her. Even when she admits to being in love with Oliver, Alice still encourages Oliver to do what's right by his wife and tries to help her.
I've been in love with this film for a very long time, and that love has just increased with every viewing. It's just as captivating today as it was in 1942, and its themes and messages of female empowerment and respect of foreign cultures were ahead of their time, making the film more topical today than ever. It's a horrific masterpiece that is equally sweet and subtle. It's an unforgettable film experience that belongs among the best films ever made.
Original theatrical aspect ratio: 1.37:1